Diary of a Watercolour Painting
Welcome to my step by step diary of a commissioned Watercolour painting!
This article is about a commissioned painting, of a rather interesting local village. I hope it gives you an insight into how a watercolour evolves. I also think you will be interested to learn more about the village of Lavenham, with it's ancient buildings and links to the USA during the second world war...
I am a working artist,and since I don't specialise in portraits, commissions are fairly rare for me. Generally I just paint stuff I like, and hope it sells, which sometimes it does.
So it is exciting to get a commission, and scary too, as there is no messing up, no try it and see.
My first ever commission came from a painting I had on display in my local french run cafe. The painting featured a calf, standing knee deep the in water of a local pond in front of a mill. but the lady who contacted me did not want anything bovine. "It's for my husband," she explained. "He doesn't like cows, he likes herons" "can you paint it with a heron?" Well it wasn't unreasonable, I re-painted the picture, popped the heron in, and everyone was happy.
First contact: end of March 2010 - No, not with aliens
Watercolour painting commission
A phone call; from my friend and student, Sarah. Excitedly she tells me, she may have a commission for me. An aunt, who has been unwell with cancer has a birthday, and the family want a really special present. Sarah is trying to persuade them that a painting of Lavenham, the village they come from would be a great gift. The family are not sure, as they think Watercolours are a bit wishy washy, so Sarah is going to take along a painting of mine to show them. Her husband bought it for her last Christmas, the painting is called 'The old bathing place" .
A few days later, the commission is on. I give Sarah instructions as to the kind of photo I need: Large, and clear, taken on the best camera she can find, preferably in bright sunlight. I am not optimistic, since the weather has taken a turn for the worse. The birthday in question is on the 11th April, and my framer has a week turn around.
The reputation watercolours have for being 'wishy washy' is entirely undeserved...
Sunday 28th March - The first photo arrives
Lavenham High Street
"I have a photo says Sarah," looking apologetic "I don't think it's very good though..." I look at the photo. The view is of the main high street in Lavenham, with half of the Swan hotel on the right. It is big enough, but that is where its charms end. Heavily pixelated, unclear, indistinct colours and an over exposed white sky. The road exits directly out of the corner of the photo, which is a big problem in composition terms, and generally it has made one of the most beautiful villages in Suffolk look dismal.
I suggest a different viewpoint, but Sarah makes it clear that her nan likes this view. Sarah and I discuss price, and agree a rough figure. I do not charge more for commissions than normal paintings, but would generally ask for half up front, non refundable, I forego this, as Sarah is a friend, so I know she will pay.
Tuesday 30th March - A break in the weather
Driving to Lavenham
Showing the photo to my boyfriend's mum a day or so later she peers at it and says "Was that taken in the '70's?" I have decided there is nothing for it but to go to Lavenham, it's only a 15 minute drive. However the weather is dreadful. It is nearly Easter, which in England can mean snow or sunburn; there's just no saying. But this year we have strong winds and heavy showers, plus it's cold. The forecast is gloomy.
Then on Tuesday afternoon, in between the heavy clouds, blue sky and sunlight. I dash out to the car with my camera. I spend half an hour waiting for brief flashes of sun, and hopping in and out of the traffic, as I need to stand in the road. It is less a case of careful composition, more a case of avoiding ending up as road kill.Two hours later and back at home the weather is again torrential.
Wednesday 31st March - The new improved photo
A better view of Lavenham High Street
Busy with other work, I only find time to sort through the photos. I keep the original photo on my desk whilst editing, knowing I must stick to a similar view, in order to fulfil my brief. In the end I am happy with my choice. It is the same view but a bit further back. It includes the whole of the swan hotel on the right, one of Lavenham's most famous and beautiful buildings, the tree on the left will serve to balance out its height. The sky is pretty with lots of blue, and the shadows help the light and sunny feel. Including the curve of the side road and posts on the right will help the perspective. There are still rather too many cars, but I can decide what to do about these later.
Late in the afternoon, I go and annoy my framer by asking him to make start making the frame up before the painting is ready.
There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house
This poem (by James Orchard Halliwell) is reputed to be inspired by the crooked buildings of Lavenham!
Thursday and Friday 1st and 2nd April - Sketching in the basic shapes
Step by step watercolour: Tackling perspective
On Thursday I start the drawing in the afternoon, having only a couple of hours before a meeting with a builder about the possibility of having a studio built! Driving over to the new house, I wait two hours for the late builder and have to go home before he arrives. What a waste of time!
Good Friday is here and at last a couple of hours to get on with the drawing. I pay no attention to the fact that it is a holiday. I tend only to take Sundays off, and if I want a day off, I choose a weekday, when everyone else is at work. The right hand side goes in well, despite my love/hate relationship with perspective (to be honest its more just hate), the left hand side is more problematic, and I have to re-draw it several times. Still the tiny distant buildings don't all quite fit in, but this really doesn't affect the picture, and I dare not erase any more, as the putty rubber I have is proving useless. The company that I buy art supplies from have changed the brand, and I don't like the new one at all!
I have at least mapped out the outlines, leaving the tree out entirely as I do not want pencil lines in the sky, I can paint it in later.
Saturday 3rd of April - Putting in the details
Step by step watercolour: Drawing the detail on the buildings
As it is Easter, I am not teaching my usual Saturday morning art class, so I take a little time to start putting the details on the picture. Normally a painting would need no more than an hours drawing, but this is different, there being so many buildings, and the houses being in many cases beamed, with leaded windows, there is detail galore. Plus extra concentration is necessary as the ancient buildings slope and sag at unusual angles, normal perspective just doesn't apply. I consider the people and cars. I tend to leave them out, as I like people to make the space their own, with whatever associations and feelings it invokes. However, Lavenham is always busy so should I stick rigidly to reality? In the end I opt for my usual style, after a friend points out that cars would date it, whereas it looks kind of timeless this way. Lavenham remains empty. Perhaps it's cup final day.
About Lavenham, Suffolk, England
A fine medieval wool town...
There is no doubt that Lavenham is one of the most beautiful and interesting villages in the whole of East Anglia. Loved by tourists from all over the world for it's unusual and quaint buildings, most of which came to be between 1450 and 1500. What makes Lavenham unique is the fact that there are whole streets of timbered buildings, not just the occasional one. Most of the buildings have 'preservation orders' on them, and in 1967 the beauty of the village was enhanced when the overhead electricity cables were buried underground.
In the past Lavenham was one of the most important and wealthy towns in England, due to its importance in the cloth trade, being famous for it's sought after blue serge cloth. In 1524 Lavenham was the 14th wealthiest town in England, and workers had flooded in, being accommodated by new timber buildings, crammed into every available plot. Towards the end of the 16th century the cloth industry declined, and Lavenham became a quieter place, although still renowned for spinning fine wool fabrics. After a brief renewal of the weaving industry at the end of the 19th century, the looms eventually fell silent after the Great War.
Lavenham is not a dead village however, and is still alive with visitors and locals. Wonderful tea rooms, gift shops, fabulous restaurants and quaint pubs abound, along with more interesting history and buildings than you can shake a stick at. I recommend you take time to see it, if you are ever in my part of the world.
The photo above shows the famous Crooked House (on the right of the picture), in real life the angle is even stranger!
Monday 5th of April - Time to start painting
Step by step watercolour: Starting the sky
I wake with a horrid cold, and the picture does not come out until the afternoon. The sky must go in first, and this will be the trickiest and most risky part of the whole painting.It is perfectly possible I could mess up the whole thing. I will work on the blue first, putting the grey of the clouds in later. The sky area is wetted first, and Cobalt Blue added quickly. I have about 2 minutes max before the paper becomes too dry and I risk lines and back runs. I don't get as much blue on as I want, and know I will have to go back into it when it is dry, repeating the process in smaller areas. The sky lacks definition, but it's not a disaster, and I am confident that it's on track.
Whilst I have the cobalt blue to hand I mix in a little Cadmium Yellow Light, and using the resultant green, put in the small shrubs and box hedge plants the shops display outside. In a moment of wickedness I add a large weed to the side of the Swan hotel!
Tuesday 6th April - Surreal skies...
Step by step watercolour: Painting cloud shadows
After a mostly sleepless night due to my cold, I feel a little surreal; too much Paracetamol perhaps. Today I work on each area of the sky, adding extra flashes of blue, and areas of cloud shadow. Each part is carefully wetted first with clean water, to avoid drying lines. Water levels are carefully controlled to keep soft edges, with no back-runs. I try to shape and form clouds from yesterday's mostly abstract affair, (I have a tendency to paint mad skies at the best of times), and succeed, after a fashion. I use a combination of Cobalt, Paynes Grey and Quinachridone Rose for the cloud shadows, being careful to avoid going too far into purple. I often use purple for skies and streets, but wish to keep the fresh feeling of spring sunshine, so it's easy on the pink. The sky is as far as I dare take it at the moment, and may well be finished, although more adjustment later is not ruled out.
Wednesday 7th April - A bit of luck
Working from light to dark in watercolour...
My oldest private student (age 94!) has cancelled her lesson. I am relieved, its not that I don't want to see her, but I am full of cold and germs, and it is nice that I have not had to let her down, as I would have been forced to cancel so as not to risk making her ill.
Which gives me a little more time to get stuck into the painting. I start by painting all the whites on the left hand side with a light grey, as the buildings are in shadow there. I also put in the yellow road line, and the paler colours in the houses. Unusually I put the shadows on the buildings at this early stage, as I fear that the dark beams may run if I try to do it at the end. I set about carefully mixing varied greys for the pavements. In any painting that has a lot of grey, brown, green or whatever it is important to vary the shades, in order to add interest. I have now added Paynes grey to my palette, and also Raw umber which I use for the light brown render on a couple of buildings.
Later the same afternoon - Fun with masking fluid
Reserving light colours with masking fluid
I paint out the road lines with masking fluid, (I often have to remind my students that masking fluid can also reserve painted areas, as well as white paper) and do the housework whilst it dries. I mix a large puddle of wash in a pale greenish grey for the road. I mix this from Cobalt, Rose and Yellow, in order to give another variation in colour. Using a very large brush I apply this quickly and evenly, giving a flat wash, which works well. I send Sarah a fuzzy picture taken on my mobile phone of the painting so far, and she seems happy.
Finally for this day, I add some flashes of Cadmium Red Light on an awning and I use this in tiny touches on plant holders and signs to lead the eye into the painting.
The USA Air Force and Lavenham
An American connection
Walk down the High Street any day in Lavenham, and you are likely to hear an American accent, but this is not just a place for day trippers. Many are visitors from the air bases at Lakenheath and Mildenhall, coming to see the village where there the 487th USA Bomb Group was stationed, at Lavenham Air Base, during the second world war. Others are relatives of those who were stationed there. From the its opening in March 1944 to its closure in August 1945, more than 6,000 sorties were flown.
Whilst there is a memorial to the war dead in the parish church, the village cross in the main square is used for wreaths and tributes: the photo above shows recent tributes to a British soldier fallen in Afghanistan recently.
The Swan Hotel, (on the right hand side of my painting) still has the signatures of American and British airmen stationed at Lavenham decorating the ceiling of the old bar.
The close association of Americans and English during the war led to long term friendships and indeed marriages, forging a lasting link between Lavenham and the USA.
Thursday 8th April - Onto the rooftops
Building up the darker areas in watercolour
Today I start by mixing a variety of pinks for the buildings on the left hand side. In this county we have a house colour that is kind of deep salmon, it is known as Suffolk Pink. I did not grow up here, and the pink houses still amuse me, it's a bit Barbie really!
The tree needs to go in, and I don't want to draw it first, so I mix a dark green from Paynes Grey and Yellow. (Paynes grey contains so much blue pigment that you can mix greens from it.) I apply it loosely with a big brush and am generally happy. Then it is on to the roof tops, and brick fronts. I need to give the impression of bricks towards the front and add Light Oxide Red to my palette; I darken it with Cobalt to give interesting darks.
The painting is taking much longer than expected due to the level of detail. I am now certain the sky needs more blue, and I re-wet areas of it, working into it for a third time. I am finally starting to be happy with it.
Sshh - did you know...
Scenes from the latest Harry Potter movie were filmed in Lavenham recently... locals were a little disappointed to find that the famous characters will be added digitally! Look out for parts of Lavenham as Godrics Hollow and Harry's parents house.
Friday 9th April - The final push!
Finishing a watercolour painting
I have most of the day free, so I continue to work on the painting. I start with the window panes, using cobalt and paynes grey. The beams are added in a mix of paynes grey and raw umber, which is a mix I often use for old, bleached wood. This takes a long while, then I move onto the really dark areas, like the underneaths of roof tops and the black paintwork on the left. For these I use a strong mix of paynes grey, You will notice I do not use black anywhere, although it is in my palette, I use it rarely and with care, it can kill a painting, coloured darks are more interesting. Now I return to the rooftops and chimney pots, increasing the levels of contrast.
It is time to put the large shadow on the left in, and I mix a big puddle of paynes grey, with a little blue and pink to increase the purple bias. I put this on with a large brush, standing up in order to work quickly. For a minute I think I have ruined the painting, this is the riskiest part after the sky. But I force myself not to touch it, and once it dries it begins to look better. It makes shadows on the right too pale in comparison though, and I put a glaze over these to strengthen them.
Finally it is time for the last final touches, a myriad of minor small adjustments, until I am happy. I send quick shot of it to Sarah via my camera phone. She seems delighted. A quick call to my framer: the frame is ready and he thinks he can get it put together during Saturday.
Saturday 10th April - Signed, sealed and delivered
Delivering the finished watercolour
Finally, I drop the picture to my framer, and arrange to pick up at 3pm, when I will take it straight to Sarah, who lives a few minutes drive away in an adjacent village.
It was a complex and difficult painting, and I am feeling relieved it is finished, and a little nervous of course. But I need not have worried, Sarah is delighted with it, and I hear a few days later that her aunt (whose present it was) and the rest of the family love the painting!
UPDATE, June 2010 - I am still getting compliments for this picture by people who have seen it, which is fantastic, and makes all the hard work worthwhile!
UPDATE, April 2011 - Some sad news. The lady who recieved the painting as a gift lost her battle with cancer a few months ago. I am pleased however it gave her some pleasure in the last few months of her life. The painting is still a much loved and remains in the family. .
UPDATE, March 2013 - The painting is still treasured by the family, and they have kindly given me permission to have it scanned so I can offer it as a limited edition print. I remove the painting from the frame, have it scanned and re-frame it. Now it is back with the family it belongs to!
Fine art print now available
If you like the painting...
I make each of my paintings available as a high quality giclee print: Each print is individually numbered and hand-signed, and your print(s) will come beautifully wrapped in cellophane, with a leaflet of helpful framing and hanging tips plus a discount code for use against any further purchases from my shop: Just click the image to see full details/sizes/prices in my Etsy shop. Clicking does not commit you to buying!
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Further reading... - Some books that may interest you:
Fascinating Timber framed buildings
Step by step tuition for drawing buildings
Read more about Lavenham
The beautiful buildings of Suffolk
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